The rise, the fall, the return, the fall, the return, the fall, and the return of Antonio Cassano.
I: The Boy Genius
On a mild December night in southeastern Italy, a struggling lower half team known alternately as i Galletti (The Cockerels) and the Biancorossi (The White-Reds) took to the pitch against an Inter Milan team fielding talent including Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Christian Panucci, Clarence Seedorf, and World Cup winner of the previous year Laurent Blanc. Although AS Bari had been promoted into Serie A only three seasons before, they had crafted respectable mid-table finishes in two seasons out of two. As the millennium came to an end in the little Mediterranean village, however, the Biancorossi were struggling to tread water only a few places out of the relegation zone. Winners of one game in their last five, they needed a result in the most unlikely of situations.
The weight of the moment must have put a charge into the dressing room, and Bari began the game on top, culminating in a bolt from outside the box in the 6th minute scored by Nigerian striker Hugo Enyinnaya. The Nerrazzuri capitalized only six minutes later on dodgy defending, with Christian Vieri (who had been bought for a world record transfer fee before the season) making good on Inter manager Marcello Lippi’s investment. With the game at 1-1, both teams got stuck in and the night dragged by until only a few minutes of normal time remained. Surely, the Galletti faithful would have been satisfied with the result; and yet, they were treated to a transcendent experience.
A Bari-born youth team player, starting only due to an injury crisis, little known to anyone other than club fans, Antonio Cassano seized on a long clearance in the 88th minute–seized isn’t strong enough a word. He tracked the long ball, overran it, and, compensating, managed to control the ball out of the air in one graceful movement with the back of his heel, popping it over his shoulder and in front of him, literally onto his forehead. All while running at full speed. Continuing, he played the ball down to his feet and raced in to the box with two defenders, including Blanc, closing in. The defenders made the sensible defensive play, cutting off both his route to and back from the goal. Demonstrating what would become a legendary elusiveness, Cassano pivoted into the only space that would have afforded him a shot, that is to say, exactly perpendicular to his run, nearing on defying physics. Once he tilted that direction, both defenders, having overrun the ball, looked back in confusion. By which time Cassano had twisted and put the ball into the back of the net. He ran into the stands and was mobbed by fans and reporters. The game finished two goals to one, Bari (who stayed up that season).
Performances like this earned the 17-year old Cassano transfer speculation, linking him repeatedly with Manchester United and Juventus during the 2000-2001 season. The Italian champions Roma, led by their disciplinarian Fabio Capello, finally bit in March to the tune of 22 million pounds, then a world transfer record for a teenager. “He is one of the leading talents in Italian football,” Capello said after his capture. With Cassano only a lame duck presence, Bari slipped down the table, and were relegated at the end of the season. Grandfathered into the lineup over the course of the 2001-2002 season, Cassano scored his first goal for the club, a “brilliant volley at the back post” (Guardian 14 Jan 2002) at home against Hellas Verona. By the start of 2002-2003 season he was a regular fixture in the starting line-up, scoring goals and impressing managers and pundits alike. After a 1-1 draw in which Cassano scored after coming on as a sub against Lazio in early 2003, then-coach Roberto Mancini remarked: “Roma did very little in front of goal. Cassano, though, was fantastic. He took the header well, despite being one of the shortest players on the pitch.”
In February of 2004, Cassano played the central role as Roma decimated Juventus, winning a penalty for their second goal and scoring their next two in a 4-0 victory.
His star was undoubtedly on the rise and he was named into Italy’s 2004 European Championship squad. Plaudits and anticipation were at an all time high. From Gordon Strachan in a Euros preview for the Guardian: “Cassano can spot a pass, score goals and doesn’t panic. He will take over from Alessandro del Piero.” Despite naming almost the same squad that would become world champions two years later, there was no indication of their future success in the way they played. The Azzuri’s opening match was a lackluster draw against Denmark in which Cassano came on as a substitute; in their next match, against Sweden, Cassano scored the opener and was substituted in the 70th minute, after which “the momentum was lost” (Guardian, 19 June 2004) and Ibrahimovich scored. After two draws, Italy needed to beat Bulgaria, their third opponent and have either Denmark or Sweden win against each other to progress. Although Bulgaria scored first, Italy equalized after the break and Cassano again displayed his penchant for important late goals, scoring in the box three minutes into extra time. Racing off to celebrate Italy’s passage, his elation turned into tearful depression, as he learned the news that Sweden scored their own late goal to finish their match with Denmark at 2-2, the one result that would prevent Italy from going through.
Coming next: Part II: The Boy Genius…Who Refused to Grow Up